Relational habits can lead to life and health or disease and death for a marriage as surely as physical habits can lead to health or disease in a body.
Dr. John Gottman is a best-selling author and has been researching marriage for over 40 years.
In part 1 of this blog series, we looked at the first of Dr. Gottman’s four horsemen of the marriage apocalypse: criticism. (CLICK HERE to read that post.)
Dr. Gottman says this second horseman is the deadliest:
A Google search on “define contempt” brings up this definition:
the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn
Imagine a two people trying to talk about an issue that has caused ongoing conflict between them. Now imagine one partner thinking the other’s point of view is beneath consideration or worthless. We’ll use taking out the garbage again.
He feels a little put upon because he always has to take out the kitchen trash. She explains that the trash makes her gag. He says, “I don’t like the smell, either.” She says, “No, I almost throw up.” He rolls his eyes, a sure sign that he thinks her reply is “beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving of scorn.” He has actually heard her gag when she has tried to take out the trash. When this happens he thinks, “Oh, really. Nobody gags like that.”
Dr. Gottman writes:
This sarcasm and cynicism are types of contempt. So are name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt— the worst of the four horsemen— is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than to reconciliation.1
Contempt is poison to a relationship because one partner is not interested in resolution. Contempt feels like it has the high ground. Contempt doesn’t see any reason to communicate about conflict because it is entirely the other person’s problem.
By the way, contempt can go both ways. It’s not just for the person who feels like their partner isn’t doing what she should. The person who forgets to take out the trash can hold his partner in contempt just as easily, looking down on her as some uptight, type A, overly neat control freak who just needs to loosen up.
What’s the solution for contempt?
There is no quick fix for contempt. But it starts with the Biblical concept of repentance. When you hold someone in contempt, you are sitting in judgment over them. Jesus said,
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. — Luke 6:37, NIV
“Repent” means to think differently. He needs to recognize his partner as a full and complex human being. He needs to embrace the fact that she is quite legitimately different from him. The person holding the other in contempt may have some real inner work to do. That’s ok. We all do.
The person who is being held in contempt has the difficult job of remaining present in the face of the judging attitude.
Whether you sense contempt in yourself or from your partner, it is not a death sentence for the relationship. But take it seriously. The Gottman institute offers an exercise to help couples move away from contempt back toward fondness and admiration. (CLICK HERE to read that blog post.)
Next post: Horseman #3, Defensiveness.
1Gottman, John; Nan Silver. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (p. 29). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.